Archive for the 'Mysterious English' Category


Why Westerners may not understand Indians

India Linguistic MapIn India, Sociolinguists become little children in a big candy shop: spoiled for choice. Languages crisscross India like the fabric on a Scottish kilt or the Madras cotton print saris. Languages are like brightly colored stripes that blend into another color when they intersect, then continue merrily alone as they were before. There is little if anything homogeneous about India. It is a bouquet of cultures, classes, and religions. It is a linguistic kaleidoscope. To the visitor, it can be chaotic. This confluence or “sangram” of languages in India means that no Indian will understand the language of all Indians.

Imagine if you were visiting Europe. Each country would have a different language and culture. In India, many states have a different language and culture. So what happens when Indians move or shift as they say to another place in India? What happens when they have to deal with someone from another religion who speaks a different language or dialect? They adjust. Indians are far more sensitive to what linguists call paralinguistic features or body language than most Westerners. Indians are not as limited to language as citizens from a mono-lingual nation. From childhood, they did not always understand what people were saying around them, so they learned to read faces, the tones of a voice, the nod of the head, the windows of the eyes, the quick wave of a hand, or the stance of the body.  As children, we were all like this, but Indians needed to keep these skills.

Words don’t mean the same thing or have the same value in a multi-lingual society. So when a Westerner trainer or business person works with Indians, they are sometimes under the illusion that their words are doing all the communicating. They forget that the body language is signaling a lot more to the participants who can be confused when the words don’t match the body language. Learning doesn’t take place in seminars. Ideas are not exchanged in meetings. Directives cannot be obeyed because they weren’t understood. The speaker may say, “You’re doing a good job,” but the body language shows a tightness and insecurity, and the listener isn’t sure if the words are true.

Many westerners, especially those who live in urban communities, have lost the instinct to pick up non-verbal signals from others. What can be done? Relax.  If you have that peace of mind,  then you will give out the right signals.  If you are calm, you can pick up non-verbal communication in others and respond accordingly.

Comments are more than welcome.  I would like to learn more about this subject from you.


I am sorry; please forgive me. I was wrong.

submissive-tigerThese nine words don’t seem to be too common in colloquial Indian English especially in the workplace.  When preparing  material for an International Business English seminar,  complicated grammatical points and new vocabulary are not the main points.  These nine words will be challenging enough.  Yes, all the participants know what the words mean.  they know how to pronounce them. Then why do participants find it so difficult to say these words?

If I want to have fun, and I always want to have fun,  as the facilitator, I have the participants pair up for role play.  They must act out a scenario where one person has made a mistake and must admit it to the other.  Otherwise articulate managers will suddenly stutter and go silent when they need to say these words.   Some are able to articulate the words, it will be a little above a whisper and lost in the drone of the AC motor.  Others will say the words clearly but add many caveats on how it wasn’t really their fault and the cause of the mix-up was really the other partner’s mistake.

At times, I feel like I am doing speech therapy, helping the participants form the words, coaxing them to articulate.  For Indians, they will suddenly look as pale as an Englishman in November.  They will either freeze or one part of their body will start to jump–a whole leg will start to twitch, fingers drum on the table, and the eyes blink rapidly or stop all together to present the glazed gaze.  Suddenly a pen will taste very good.  One may suddenly need to go to use the facilities.

If I really want to challenge the participants, I will pair up a man with a woman, or a subordinate with an upper manager, or a Tamil with a North Indian.  There will be appropriate scenarios where the manager made the mistake and has to apologize.

We also do virtual team meetings reenactments with Western counterparts.  Participants learn that in business cultures where direct speech is common, they must outwardly admit when they have made a mistake. How much money can be saved when team members learn to say and use these nine words?  How many projects will escape long-term delays?  How many relationships can be repaired?  How much trust could be established?

So why aren’t these nine words heard more often?  Because the root meaning of these words have a different meaning in Indian English.   It’s a different value system.  Words have meaning in that particular cultural value system.  To some Indians, to admit that he was wrong is a sign of weakness, defeat, and vulnerability.   It would be taking on the submissive role of exposing his throat as when two tigers fight.  He feels as though he will lose credibility among his peers and with his boss.  He fears that if he takes the blame for that one instance, he might be the scapegoat for any problems related to it.  To admit that one is wrong, one can lose his status.

When American businessmen read this they could easily think that this cultural attitude is due to pride.  It is not as easy as that.  It is simply not part of the mentality, meaning that it is not a conscious decision.  Deep cultural characteristics are in the subconscious.  The participants are not aware that they are trying to pass the buck.  They are using normal negotiation tactics in their culture.

In most Western cultures, the person who needs to apologize will do so because he has faith that when he does, he will be repairing the relationship and perhaps making it stronger.  The Indian doesn’t necessarily have that assurance.  He may feel that it is safer for him to lie or cover the truth in order to keep the relationship.

This little blog cannot do justice to this subject.  I write it only as a talking point for others to add their wisdom and experience.  And if I have written something in error, then I’m sorry; please forgive me.  I was wrong.

(To learn how to write an apology email, see this sample: